Let Advent be Dark

Grief. It’s been nearly 14 years since Emma died, long enough that I have to mentally do the math every time anyone asks me. It doesn’t feel completely true to say I’m still grieving the loss of my daughter, but there are definitely still times of grief. Times of sadness, times of confusion, times of anxiety. A few years ago, I had one therapist talk to me for five minutes and tell me that I still had some grieving to do, which was an idea that I rejected in the moment because I was sure I had reached acceptance. I’m realizing now that she may have known more than I gave her credit for.

In my EMDR session last week, my therapist illustrated grief for me with this diagram:

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That little double-ended arrow next to acceptance is the most empowering part of this image for me. Grief is a journey. You can reach acceptance and still have times of slipping back into the cycle of anger, sadness and anxiety. And that’s considered normal. This was freeing for me to know, because my EMDR session was on Emma. And it was rough. 

There’s a piece of her story that I have never shared publicly, a part that still holds a lot of questions for me and is linked to some self-blaming and shame. Most of the time that piece is safely tucked away beneath my consciousness, but in times of turmoil, when I slip back into the grief cycle, I sometimes get stuck in the anxiety stage (Anxiety is the stage that has sometimes been labelled bargaining. I find that the word anxiety resonates with me more, and still gets across the idea of our tendency to ask “what if”). I get pulled right back to the part of the story that I’ve never been able to completely accept. It is one small moment of one day where I made a choice, the consequences of which I worry may have negatively affected my daughter’s health. It’s a memory that will never have complete answers for me because there is no way to know exactly how this one event affected things, so to accept this part of the story means to accept the unknown. And instead of accepting it, I continue to ask, “What if? What if I had done something different on that day? Would the story have still ended up the same way?” 

In my session on Monday, my therapist uttered the most powerful statement I’ve ever heard in relation to that one piece. She said, “The truth is that even though you’ll never have the answers to that question, there is most likely nothing you could have done that would have saved your daughter’s life.” As soon as she said it, something clicked. By focusing on the one moment where I failed her, I have avoided grieving the deep harsh truth that there is no way I could have saved my daughter’s life. I held no such power. In almost every other moment of her life I gave her everything I possibly could. And it wasn’t enough, and that really sucks. 

I find myself now, bumping around in that grief cycle once again. But it’s different now as I try to name and acknowledge the grief of powerlessness. Grief is such a tricky thing. It’s not just sadness, but the need to be sad. It’s not just circumstantial, but comes and goes from your core. Grief means looking at the world around you and seeing how dark it actually is. Grieving Emma’s death yet again isn’t just grieving one event or one life or one loss. It connects to all sorts of other losses, and speaks to me in echoes of a broken world.

When I returned to EMDR this week, I was hesitant to delve into this. Christmas is coming. I want to focus on happy things, gift giving, plans for the break, work that I want to get done before the kids are off school. I thought that this was a bad time for my grief. But my therapist encouraged me to be intentional this week at facing the grief and feeling it. I can’t magically skip ahead to the acceptance stage, I have to be in the dark for awhile. She told me that it won’t be easy, but to face it now, when my body and mind are telling me they are ready, will result in a quicker, smoother process overall. I left the appointment with greater intention to do what needs to be done this week, rather than avoid it. And, as I reflected on this, I realized that the darkness of Advent is the perfect time to process grief. In Advent we get the chance to acknowledge the brokenness of both ourselves and the world around us. This is the time to “sit in the shit,” as my therapist says, so that we remember what hope is for. After all, resilience and health are built by descending into the pit of despair, disappointment, heartbreak and hopelessness and then climbing back out over and over again.

If that doesn’t sound like Advent as you know it, perhaps it is time to reclaim it. Some find their hope in the declaration that Jesus is coming! Christmas, for these people, is a time to reaffirm their faith in the hope of an external Savior who came once to save us and will come yet again. For these people, Advent is basically waiting, waiting for someone else to do something.

I personally think a hope in an external Savior is misplaced. What if true salvation cannot come from outside our world, but only from within? If this is the way we view salvation, then Christmas is a celebration not of the coming of God, but the realization that he was here all along. Emmanuel–God with us! What if every single one of us, no matter who we are, has the potential to be both a giver and receiver of salvation? Our ability to do either of those things will be increased by our willingness to spend time in the darkness of Advent. Because if we are the ones who are called to do something about the brokenness, we need to know it intimately.

I encourage you this Advent to take time to name the brokenness in yourself and in the world around you. Let’s acknowledge the darkness of this world, so that when Christmas comes we will each light the candle that we hold, see once again the saviors that live among us, and work together to build the steps of hope to bring us out of the darkness and into the light.

 

Body and Soul

I lay on the table listening to my body as the fingers of my therapist moved gently over my back and legs, flipping switches, releasing energy and emotion that surged up towards my head. When I scheduled my first Bowen session, I could hear those skeptical voices in my own mind telling me that this was a desperate and useless attempt to treat my neck pain. But I did feel out of options and there was a deeper voice inside pointing out that all of what I’d read about this method completely aligned with my view of the world, of spirit, and of body.

In that first session the release of emotion within my body left me in uncontrollable tears and the therapist ended up wrapping her arms around me in a hug as I cried into her shoulder. It really doesn’t matter how or why it happened, but only that it happened. I was holding on to things that needed release and somehow that day they were released through tears in a healthy and safe environment.

None of the following sessions have been as intense, but I still feel both energy and emotion pulsing through my body as she does tiny adjustments down my spine, legs, arms, neck and finally my face. And this day as I lay feeling my own body, giving weight to its voice, I realized how much of my life has been spent doing the opposite.

My body has always spoken to me quite loudly. It’s why I always wanted to dance as a child, and why I was always super conscious of making sure I didn’t move my body in certain ways in public because certain types of dancing (particularly those that involve your hips) were considered inappropriate in the culture of my youth. Because I was always so conscious of my body’s place and movement in the spaces I inhabited I practiced rigid control over it when surrounded by others. But in the privacy of my own room, I let my body lead the way in my dance, and those hippy, suggestive dances were precisely the type of dances I wanted to do.

I knew why those dances were looked on with suspicion and I knew why they were considered inappropriate, but there was something within me that was captivated by my own body and the power it held. I don’t think that all of this had to do with sexuality, but because that was one of the energies that pulsed within me, I viewed this fascination with fear and shame. I think this was mostly because no one in my close circle of trusted individuals knew what to do with my body awareness. Without really meaning to, they taught me to fight my body, to feel shame over any attraction or confusing thoughts, and to link everything from suggestive dancing to masturbation to a part of myself that I thought was dirty and sinful. Sex was a beautiful and wonderful thing, I was told, but only in one specific context. I therefore learned that my body could not be trusted, and though I couldn’t silence the messages it was sending to me, they were often warped. I looked for the answers to life’s questions outside of myself, and tried to categorize those things within me depending on how they compared to the external messages I read in the culture around me. I labelled those that lined up as coming from the Spirit and those that didn’t as coming from my untrustworthy body (well, technically, I believed they came from Satan, who I viewed as the source of all sinful nature and impulses, which meant I gave no weight at all to my own body as a source).

I also grew up in a family that used spanking as a method of discipline, at least when we were very young. I never thought twice about this until I was a parent myself and had to wrestle firsthand with the implications for myself and my children of this disciplinary method. Now I look back and realize that this was one more way that I was taught to separate myself from my body, as if bodies could be subjected to pain without damaging the spirit or soul beneath. And as a parent, I realized that not only were my children the victims of my choice to inflict pain, but that the very act of inflicting that pain was also damaging my own soul.

In our Christian context we were taught that our bodies are the temple of the living God, and yet we were rarely taught to pay attention to the Spirit moving within us. Instead our bodies were seen as temporary shells, something that we would one day discard and therefore were not as important as “soul.” That the two could be separated so easily was never questioned.

But through all of it, I still loved my body. I danced in front of the mirror. I brushed my hair while admiring the glisten of it. I admired my own shape, and secretly loved any admiration I received from others. I was once called vain. I preferred to think of myself as self-confident. Whatever you name it, I am grateful for it now because I think it preserved a connection to my body that could have been lost. I was, of course, not immune to the messages of body idealism that we have all struggled with at one point or another. When my stomach was flabbier than I wanted or my hips and thighs wider, I wished they were different. After having kids, this of course, got harder because my body had changed. That thin, curvy in all the right places, body that I had in my teenage years had become soft in the wrong places, thick where I didn’t want it to be. I may not be fighting my body in the same way I did as a kid, but I do often find myself fighting the way it is now. Always wanting to be lighter, thinner, stronger. I struggle to find a way to work with my body to find my healthiest version of myself instead of seeing my body as the enemy.

But our bodies are not our enemies. On the contrary, no matter how much we mistreat our bodies, they continually work to support us. Our souls are not held in an empty shell, but rather entwined in an amazing living body that pulses with light and energy. Within my body I have found love, wisdom, intuition and creativity. And also scars. Our bodies hold the emotional and mental pain that we find too great to bear. All our traumas, large and small, scar our body as it willingly holds the pain for us so that we can survive. Yet we ignore it and push away the signs when it says it is now time to deal with this hurt that they’ve been holding for us. We get angry, wondering why our bodies are now failing us, when in fact our bodies hurt and ache specifically because they have been doing all along what they were made to do. We ignore those voices within that are asking now for our attention, and thereby continue to add to our own pain. I do not believe that our souls and bodies are as separate as we’d like to believe. What hurts one hurts the other.

Ironically, the one thing that has ended up treating my chronic neck pain most effectively has been dance. That thing my body was always telling me to do was the thing I needed most. And all that pent up emotion, fear, confusion and stored pain? I’m working on releasing that too through EMDR therapy, which includes a lot of body listening. The Spirit moves within me, just as it does within each human being. I try now to pay attention to it. I try to embrace all of myself. I dance the way I want to dance. I smile when I look at myself and see the beauty my body holds. I embrace that power I feel within myself instead of fighting it. I look with curiosity and acceptance on all the ways in which my body speaks to me, whether that energy be sexual, intuitive, creative, divine or just pure joyful. I am learning to see my body and soul as intertwined. Only in that understanding will I be truly whole.

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Heart and Mind on Relationship.

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My mind says I’m lonely. My heart disagrees, or at least it disagrees with the cause. Loneliness as a concept is hard to hold on to. Its letters are vapor. As I try to grasp them they slip through my fingers. I envelop them instead in a sheet as I pull them from my head into my heart.

“But look,” Heart objects. “There are all these strong connections that reach out to those who are far away. If I hurt, I hurt for lack of closeness to those I already love. It is not for want of new relationships that I suffer, but because I am missing the friends I already have scattered all over the world.”

“But there is no easy solution to that loneliness,” replies Mind. “Those relationships are of course important, and we can work to keep them, but none of them hold the possibility of being here now. Don’t you long for connection that is more consistently close?” There is a pause, and then she quietly adds: “Or are you scared?”

My eyes well with tears as the Heart pulses with emotion. “Of course I’m scared! I’m scared of not finding it. And I’m equally scared of finding it and losing it, or worse, messing up the order in my life because the attachment is too strong or too messy. Are we even meant to have more than a few of these attachments? What if we have met our limit already? If the connections I have are all I will ever have, shouldn’t we cling to them?”

“It is not healthy to cling,” Mind gently reminds. “We have learned that much at least. It may awaken emotion, but it is painful emotion and it is selfish. It does not show value to the personhood of those to whom we cling. No, we must not cling. And have we reached our limit? The only way to know is to remain open to finding new connections. If there is but one soul here that beats on the same wavelength as you, I intend to do my best to find it for you.”

“Ah,” Heart responds. “But there may not be even one.” (The words are not said with malice, but with gentleness and caution.) “If I am to join you in this venture, you must hold this intention as loosely as you ask me to hold my connections. Let us find peace in the journey, remaining open, yet not desperate.”

Transition + Anxiety

movingWe moved! This was the culmination of months of job search, impatient waiting, packing, finding a house and so many things that added increasing amounts of stress into our life. The act of moving was the final piece. In some ways it feels like we can breathe again now. All that we have been working for has now shifted into place.

But . . . we moved. All that I had known and became accustomed to (and yes, that even includes the stress and discomfort of waiting) has changed. While I am breathing more easily now and feeling the stress lift from my shoulders, I am not comfortable. One of the triggers of my anxiety is transition. I sometimes forget how much I rely on simple familiarity to help me maintain a sense of safety. To wake in a new room, though exciting, is also unsettling to me. Setting up a new house is a chance to start fresh, organize and clean up the cluttered aspects of our house and life. But in the midst of the accumulating order, I lose the comfort of the disorder. I see hugely positive changes in our family’s emotional landscape, like my husband’s rising hope, and yet I sense the loss of the difficult emotions I had become accustomed to. I don’t grieve the loss of those hard things or regret the chance to set things up fresh and new, I just feel unanchored.

I’m trying to put it into words because I don’t think I can be the only one who struggles with this weird discomfort even in the midst of positive change. I may not have liked the clutter, I may have sworn that I wanted things to be different, yet I am so good at fitting into spaces without making waves that I can get attached to almost anything, no matter how messy. I think a portion of this has to do with my personality. Maybe it is my enneagram 2ishness, the fact that I identify so strongly in my relationships to others. I like to feel needed, and so I unconsciously start to build my identity around the ways in which I am needed. And so when that shifts, when people start to need me less, or in different ways, my mind screams out in panic, afraid that I am also losing core pieces of who I am. I think what is keeping me from completely spiralling (in addition to the practice I’ve put in daily the last few months at mindfulness) is the knowledge of two apparently contradictory, yet complimentary truths: I take up important space no matter where I am AND I have my own set of needs that must be attended to. Does it seem selfish that my method of coping is to focus more on myself (both my strengths and my weaknesses)? I am convinced that this is the healthiest way for me to navigate change. Since I most naturally tend to focus on others, I need to intentionally shift that focus during times of stress in order not to get lost or spiral into unhealthy attention seeking habits (expecting others to fill me or define me).

Of course it isn’t only negative things that we lost in this change. For me there were lots of positive aspects of our life in VA that I am grieving. Most of those center around my job. The grief of leaving is strong, and I have been trying to give it space and honor it. On Saturday, while my husband worked hours and hours to load the U-Haul, I went to work for my last day. It was not a demanding day. Most of my tasks had already been handed over to others; my attention had been shifting towards other things for several weeks now. But there were good-byes. Sweet ones. I’m not very good with good-byes. They are incredibly important to me, but I get super awkward when actually faced with them. I’m never sure if I look cold and unfeeling outwardly while I inwardly treasure every hug and soak in every word. When the day came to a close, the emotional weight of the end of something settled on my heart. I climbed into my car and let some of the tears fall, looking forward to settling in to focus a little on this grief when I got home.

But there was no home. I returned to a half empty house, messy beyond recognition. There was still so much work to be done, and no comfortable space physically or emotionally. And so instead of attending to my grief carefully and gently, I attempted to set it aside and pour myself into the packing. Of course, not surprisingly, I became a bit of a grouch that evening. And when I went to bed it became apparent that my unprocessed emotions had pushed me over the tipping point. I had managed the stress of change and the discomfort of the unknown for so long, and yet, on this night, the last night in VA I fell completely apart. It took me hours to go to sleep. There were tears of grief that were shed amidst anxiety for all that still needed to be done before we could actually get on the road the next day. My stomach was physically distressed and my mood was sour.

It took time, but I eventually regained a level of composure outwardly and inwardly on Sunday. One of the pieces that helped me was listening to my 16 year old daughter preach a good-bye sermon at her church before we left. It was thoughtful, very mature, and incredibly vulnerable. And though I shed a few tears on her behalf as she shared her grief at leaving such an amazing community, it was her strength that reached the innermost recesses of my soul. Her strength reminded me of my own.

In order to find a place for myself in this new place, I must make room for it.

 

 

A Fall and my Relationship to Loneliness.

I fell down a set of concrete steps last week. And as the bruises start to surface and the scrapes reach that ugly scabby stage, I wonder if these outward wounds are a representation of something deep inside. 

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When I tumbled down those stairs, I landed at the bottom with my skirt up around my waist and as one of my friends would have delicately put it, tomorrow’s laundry in plain view. No one was around to see me in this undignified state, and I was deeply grateful for that. Yet, there was a certain loneliness I experienced as I arranged my skirts and gently picked myself up off the ground while trying to assess the damage. Though most people would have felt like intruders in that moment, there are a handful of people that I would have gladly fallen in front of in order to hear them ask me if I were ok as they rushed to my aid and made sure I was presentable and whole before helping me to my feet.

I posted later that day about the incident and I mentioned that my internal angst had manifested itself externally. I didn’t mean that flippantly. Lately, I find myself juggling the deep gratitude I hold for my own internal strength and the desire to have someone notice that I am not ok. Sometimes it feels like it has to be either/or. But, as was mentioned in a beautiful sermon I heard on Sunday, oftentimes it is actually both/and. It’s ok to want someone to help you up even while knowing you have the strength to do it yourself.

I feel like to a certain extent this has been my internal struggle for the past five years. Five years ago I began a journey of self-discovery. It included a major faith shift, huge life changes, and lots and lots of processing of who I have been, who I am now and  who I am becoming. It’s been a rewarding process. And I’ve grown really strong through it. The external circumstances that have been a part of this process have required that strength in order for me to survive them. In my husband’s words: I “have gently but firmly held things together against what often seemed like overwhelming odds.” When the therapist I had near the beginning of this process helped me realize what exactly I was doing, she warned me that this is a lonely process. There has been a lot of separation from those around me in order to discover who I am. Separation from family, from friends, and even in some ways from my husband. I am glad she told me that then, because it has helped my extroverted, community-longing self hang on through a time when past connections were slowly dissolving.

That separation has been hard for me. I hold wounds from the past 5 years that are still not completely healed. And I think most of the time, I keep those wounds to myself. Yes, I have held things together, but sometimes I don’t want to. Sometimes I want to let it all go and let myself fall just to see if anyone will be there to catch me.

Now, more than ever I want friends. I will never be done discovering myself, but I am hopeful that I am ready now to both reform connections and make new ones. I long for connections that are not shallow, but deep, real, raw and vulnerable. I am ready for a friend who not only can pick me up when I fall down, but who knows me well enough to notice that I’m in danger of falling before it even happens.

This is not to say that I haven’t had deep, strong connections the last five years. I have found very rewarding friendships over and over again. But our transient life the last few years has meant that what I feel I am missing is those friends that are physically present in my life. I look back with loneliness and grief on periods of time when that has been true for me, even if it was only for a short time. Even as I list out these relationships to myself, I realize how few of them actually reached a level of complete vulnerability and how very few of them have maintained it with distance. I long for intimacy, to have friends that I can feel completely safe and open with. My husband and I have discussed this often, our longing for friends and community, and our fear that it will not happen.

When I fell, I was on my way to have coffee with a friend, someone who had offered to have coffee with me should I ever need it, and I had finally taken her up on the offer. I walked shakily into that coffee shop and she bandaged up my elbow without a second thought. I know that there are people around who are ready to step up and stand beside me were I to give them the chance. But in this time of transition, I hold back from engaging too deeply, waiting rather impatiently for the next stage and hoping that it will bring with it a feeling of being settled and the courage and capacity to open myself up to be vulnerable with new people. 

Anchors

We live in a world in between. A past that we have known is soon coming to a close and an unknown future looms darkly ahead of us. How do you stay anchored in a space that has nothing to hold on to? Or is it an illusion, this idea that there is nothing certain here in this space?  

My past self whispers that here, even here, especially here, there is God. But God is not who I thought him to be. He is not an all powerful being whose unseen fingers are holding the pieces of my life, putting them together, building the puzzle of good things that have been promised me.

My head reminds me that I exist. That in the midst of uncertainty I still stand. I hold within me an image of myself that I wish I had the artistic ability to recreate. She stands holding out her hands with the palms up. In them she holds pain, pulsing, beautiful pain. The wind whips her pink hair behind her like a cape. Pure bright light bursts from some unseen point behind her, lighting up the pink streaks like flames, highlighting the beauty of her curves, the strength in her legs and arms. The pain seeps between her fingers, but she stands strong, holding it out as a sacrifice, her piercing blue eyes staring ahead into her future, not blindly, but with hope. There is a fierceness in me that will not give up. Is this enough to cling to?

My heart tells me that I cannot exist alone. It reminds me that I also hold love in those blue eyes because of those people who have stood within their gaze. It reminds me that I am anchored always by the invisible connections that extend from my chest reaching out to touch those who mean so much to me. It reminds me that my best words are written when I have felt those connections pulse about me. It reminds me of what I have always known, that life is not worth living without the fellow souls who live it with me. As I lie my head on my husband’s chest and link my fingers with his I wonder if this is my anchor. We live this unknown together. He knows perhaps more than anyone else the uncertainty that haunts my soul, because he shares it.

My feet remind me that they still long to dance. Any music that fills my head, my ears, my soul, finds its way to my feet and they dance. They teach me, remind me, that joy lives within my soul. Never has it been completely quenched, never has it been lost forever. Every dark night has ended in a sunrise. Every painful emotion has been linked inexplicably with deep, passionate, meaningful joy. Joy of discovery. Joy of friendship. Joy of love. Joy of beauty. Joy, unabashed, beautiful joy. This also anchors me. I have known enough of joy to know that it will continue to find me even in the darkest of places.

My hands remind me as I type these words that they create their best work when filled with pain. My arms are strong, they hold not only my pain, but many others’ as well. And in that work that I am called to do, creativity pulses through my fingers and I find ways to express myself. Words to paint a picture of the woman who lives within. I create in other ways too, make beautiful things to wear, but when the strongest passionate emotions fill me, it is not the sewing machine that I turn to, but the pencil. Words are my greatest passion, the thing I must do when there is nothing else left to do. Is this my anchor? The call to write, to pour myself out on to paper so that I am not lost inside myself?

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Each piece exists, and therefore each piece works with the others to anchor me. And in the interplay of the pieces together each piece gains even greater strength. A circle of energy surrounds me and allows me to survive when everything around me falls apart. It is the relationship of each piece to the others, the energy found in the connections, that speaks to me of God. If God exists, she is not out there somewhere laying a path ahead of me, but rather here inside, around, above, below and behind me. She is the source of the light behind me. She is the energy that connects souls together. She dances with me and feels the joy I feel. She pulses within my veins, bringing the words to the surface, rejoicing in the beauty I create. She is the love I feel, the hope I cling to, the energy in my dance, the strength in my arms. 

Pink = Passion

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This pink in my hair is more than just a fun experiment. It is a symbol. That doesn’t mean it isn’t also fun. 🙂 It most definitely is, and I am ok with that being what other people see when they look at me.

But for me it goes much deeper. When I look in the mirror and see these pink streaks, I am reminded of pieces of myself that are sometimes hidden. The pink actually symbolizes a lot of things for me and I’m not going to go into all of them right now, but I’d like to share about one piece of it that has become incredibly important to me right now. It is almost as if I knew that during this period of my life I would need the visible reminder of pink hair.

Pink is not practical. Pink is passion. Running deep within my soul I have discovered a woman who is strong, brave and a little bit wild. That woman is me, even though it seems easier somehow to label her as someone else. But that deep core piece of who I am, the one who makes choices based on passion rather than practicality, is the piece that has carried me through some of the most difficult years of adulthood. And I haven’t been merely surviving. Most of the time I’ve been thriving.

And as the work of the last five years seems to be all coming together, and everything feels like it’s about to burst at the seams, it is not practicality that is getting me through each day, but rather passion. In fact, practically speaking, things are pretty much a mess. The budget is all but forgotten. The house waffles between messy and barely passable. And all sorts of “practical” things are just pushed aside right now. My physical surroundings in some way mirror the internal jumble of things. John says this is a liminal space. A space between. We are nearing a threshold, about to step into a different future. We are nearly there, but not there yet. And as we hang out in this weird in between, uncomfortable space, we sometimes struggle to make it through the day to day stuff.

In particular right now the stress of everything, the unknown future, the endless to dos, the responsibilities I feel like I am shirking, the individual struggles of each of my children, and the need to constantly weigh different possible options in the never ending job search is getting to me. I feel as if I am walking along a precipice and one big gust of wind will knock me right over the edge. In fact, several times the last few days I actually did feel like I was falling. But then this passionate, no nonsense, crazy energy pushes its way forward and laughs in the face of danger. She not only walks the narrow path, but dances across it on her toes.

There is a piece of me that has always been ready for an adventure. There is a piece of me that has always made decisions based on gut and passion. I am relying on this piece to lead the way right now. And it is this piece that I am reminding myself to speak out of when in conversation with my husband. Because I do not want a safe and practical future. I want an adventure. I want a life filled with joy and passion. And I will fight hard to remind him to not settle, to remember that he married someone a little bit wild, who is not afraid to try something new, to risk it all with the hope that something amazing could possibly happen.

This pink in my hair is not all fun. It reminds me that I can do amazing things. And that, my friends, is a a dangerous and supremely wonderful truth.